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   Chapter 10 CH'GEEGEE-LOKH-SIS.

Ways of Wood Folk By William J. Long Characters: 20044

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

hat is the name which the northern Indians give to the black-capped tit-mouse, or chickadee. "Little friend Ch'geegee" is what it means; for the Indians, like everybody else who knows Chickadee, are fond of this cheery little brightener of the northern woods. The first time I asked Simmo what his people called the bird, he answered with a smile. Since then I have asked other Indians, and always a smile, a pleased look lit up the dark grim faces as they told me. It is another tribute to the bright little bird's influence.

Chickadee wears well. He is not in the least a creature of moods. You step out of your door some bright morning, and there he is among the shrubs, flitting from twig to twig; now hanging head down from the very tip to look into a terminal bud; now winding upward about a branch, looking industriously into every bud and crevice. An insect must hide well to escape those bright eyes. He is helping you raise your plants. He looks up brightly as you approach, hops fearlessly down and looks at you with frank, innocent eyes. Chick a dee dee dee dee! Tsic a de-e-e?-this last with a rising inflection, as if he were asking how you were, after he had said good-morning. Then he turns to his insect hunting again, for he never wastes more than a moment talking. But he twitters sociably as he works.

You meet him again in the depths of the wilderness. The smoke of your camp fire has hardly risen to the spruce tops when close beside you sounds the same cheerful greeting and inquiry for your health. There he is on the birch twig, bright and happy and fearless! He comes down by the fire to see if anything has boiled over which he may dispose of. He picks up gratefully the crumbs you scatter at your feet. He trusts you.-See! he rests a moment on the finger you extend, looks curiously at the nail, and sounds it with his bill to see if it shelters any harmful insect. Then he goes back to his birch twigs.

On summer days he never overflows with the rollicksomeness of bobolink and oriole, but takes his abundance in quiet contentment. I suspect it is because he works harder winters, and his enjoyment is more deep than theirs. In winter when the snow lies deep, he is the life of the forest. He calls to you from the edges of the bleak caribou barrens, and his greeting somehow suggests the May. He comes into your rude bark camp, and eats of your simple fare, and leaves a bit of sunshine behind him. He goes with you, as you force your way heavily through the fir thickets on snowshoes. He is hungry, perhaps, like you, but his note is none the less cheery and hopeful.

When the sun shines hot in August, he finds you lying under the alders, with the lake breeze in your face, and he opens his eyes very wide and says: "Tsic a dee-e-e? I saw you last winter. Those were hard times. But it's good to be here now." And when the rain pours down, and the woods are drenched, and camp life seems beastly altogether, he appears suddenly with greeting cheery as the sunshine. "Tsic a de-e-e-e? Don't you remember yesterday? It rains, to be sure, but the insects are plenty, and to-morrow the sun will shine." His cheerfulness is contagious. Your thoughts are better than before he came.

Really, he is a wonderful little fellow; there is no end to the good he does. Again and again I have seen a man grow better tempered or more cheerful, without knowing why he did so, just because Chickadee stopped a moment to be cheery and sociable. I remember once when a party of four made camp after a driving rain-storm. Everybody was wet; everything soaking. The lazy man had upset a canoe, and all the dry clothes and blankets had just been fished out of the river. Now the lazy man stood before the fire, looking after his own comfort. The other three worked like beavers, making camp. They were in ill humor, cold, wet, hungry, irritated. They said nothing.

A flock of chickadees came down with sunny greetings, fearless, trustful, never obtrusive. They looked innocently into human faces and pretended that they did not see the irritation there. "Tsic a dee. I wish I could help. Perhaps I can. Tic a dee-e-e?"-with that gentle, sweetly insinuating up slide at the end. Somebody spoke, for the first time in half an hour, and it wasn't a growl. Presently somebody whistled-a wee little whistle; but the tide had turned. Then somebody laughed. "'Pon my word," he said, hanging up his wet clothes, "I believe those chickadees make me feel good-natured. Seem kind of cheery, you know, and the crowd needed it."

And Chickadee, picking up his cracker crumbs, did not act at all as if he had done most to make camp comfortable.

There is another way in which he helps, a more material way. Millions of destructive insects live and multiply in the buds and tender bark of trees. Other birds never see them, but Chickadee and his relations leave never a twig unexplored. His bright eyes find the tiny eggs hidden under the buds; his keen ears hear the larv? feeding under the bark, and a blow of his little bill uncovers them in their mischief-making. His services of this kind are enormous, though rarely acknowledged.

Chickadee's nest is always neat and comfortable and interesting, just like himself. It is a rare treat to find it. He selects an old knot-hole, generally on the sheltered side of a dry limb, and digs out the rotten wood, making a deep and sometimes winding tunnel downward. In the dry wood at the bottom he makes a little round pocket and lines it with the very softest material. When one finds such a nest, with five or six white eggs delicately touched with pink lying at the bottom, and a pair of chickadees gliding about, half fearful, half trustful, it is altogether such a beautiful little spot that I know hardly a boy who would be mean enough to disturb it.

One thing about the nests has always puzzled me. The soft lining has generally more or less rabbit fur. Sometimes, indeed, there is nothing else, and a softer nest one could not wish to see. But where does he get it? He would not, I am sure, pull it out of Br'er Rabbit, as the crow sometimes pulls wool from the sheep's backs. Are his eyes bright enough to find it hair by hair where the wind has blown it, down among the leaves? If so, it must be slow work; but Chickadee is very patient. Sometimes in spring you may surprise him on the ground, where he never goes for food; but at such times he is always shy, and flits up among the birch twigs, and twitters, and goes through an astonishing gymnastic performance, as if to distract your attention from his former unusual one. That is only because you are near his nest. If he has a bit of rabbit fur in his bill meanwhile, your eyes are not sharp enough to see it.

Once after such a performance I pretended to go away; but I only hid in a pine thicket. Chickadee listened awhile, then hopped down to the ground, picked up something that I could not see, and flew away. I have no doubt it was the lining for his nest near by. He had dropped it when I surprised him, so that I should not suspect him of nest-building.

Such a bright, helpful little fellow should have never an enemy in the world; and I think he has to contend against fewer than most birds. The shrike is his worst enemy, the swift swoop of his cruel beak being always fatal in a flock of chickadees. Fortunately the shrike is rare with us; one seldom finds his nest, with poor Chickadee impaled on a sharp thorn near by, surrounded by a varied lot of ugly beetles. I suspect the owls sometimes hunt him at night; but he sleeps in the thick pine shrubs, close up against a branch, with the pine needles all about him, making it very dark; and what with the darkness, and the needles to stick in his eyes, the owl generally gives up the search and hunts in more open woods.

Sometimes the hawks try to catch him, but it takes a very quick and a very small pair of wings to follow Chickadee. Once I was watching him hanging head down from an oak twig to which the dead leaves were clinging; for it was winter. Suddenly there was a rush of air, a flash of mottled wings and fierce yellow eyes and cruel claws. Chickadee whisked out of sight under a leaf. The hawk passed on, brushing his pinions. A brown feather floated down among the oak leaves. Then Chickadee was hanging head down, just where he was before. "Tsic a dee? Didn't I fool him!" he seemed to say. He had just gone round his twig, and under a leaf, and back again; and the danger was over. When a hawk misses like that he never strikes again.

Boys generally have a kind of sympathetic liking for Chickadee. They may be cruel or thoughtless to other birds, but seldom so to him. He seems somehow like themselves.

Two barefoot boys with bows and arrows were hunting, one September day, about the half-grown thickets of an old pasture. The older was teaching the younger how to shoot. A robin, a chipmunk, and two or three sparrows were already stowed away in their jacket pockets; a brown rabbit hung from the older boy's shoulder. Suddenly the younger raised his bow and drew the arrow back to its head. Just in front a chickadee hung and twittered among the birch twigs. But the older boy seized his arm.

"Don't shoot-don't shoot him!" he said.

"But why not?"

"'Cause you mustn't-you must never kill a chickadee."

And the younger, influenced more by a certain mysterious shake of the head than by the words, slacked his bow cheerfully; and with a last wide-eyed look at the little gray bird that twittered and swung so fearlessly near them, the two boys went on with their hunting.

No one ever taught the older boy to discriminate between a chickadee and other birds; no one else ever instructed the younger. Yet somehow both felt, and still feel after many years, that there is a difference. It is always so with boys. They are friends of whatever trusts them and is fearless. Chickadee's own personality, his cheery ways and trustful nature had taught them, though they knew it not. And

among all the boys of that neighborhood there is still a law, which no man gave, of which no man knows the origin, a law as unalterable as that of the Medes and Persians: Never kill a chickadee.

If you ask the boy there who tells you the law, "Why not a chickadee as well as a sparrow?" he shakes his head as of yore, and answers dogmatically: "'Cause you mustn't."

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If you meet Chickadee in May with a bit of rabbit fur in his mouth, or if he seem preoccupied or absorbed, you may know that he is building a nest, or has a wife and children near by to take care of. If you know him well, you may even feel hurt that the little friend, who shared your camp and fed from your dish last winter, should this spring seem just as frank, yet never invite you to his camp, or should even lead you away from it. But the soft little nest in the old knot-hole is the one secret of Chickadee's life; and the little deceptions by which he tries to keep it are at times so childlike, so transparent, that they are even more interesting than his frankness.

One afternoon in May I was hunting, without a gun, about an old deserted farm among the hills-one of those sunny places that the birds love, because some sense of the human beings who once lived there still clings about the half wild fields and gives protection. The day was bright and warm. The birds were everywhere, flashing out of the pine thickets into the birches in all the joyfulness of nest-building, and filling the air with life and melody. It is poor hunting to move about at such a time. Either the hunter or his game must be still. Here the birds were moving constantly; one might see more of them and their ways by just keeping quiet and invisible.

I sat down on the outer edge of a pine thicket, and became as much as possible a part of the old stump which was my seat. Just in front an old four-rail fence wandered across the deserted pasture, struggling against the blackberry vines, which grew profusely about it and seemed to be tugging at the lower rail to pull the old fence down to ruin. On either side it disappeared into thickets of birch and oak and pitch pine, planted, as were the blackberry vines, by birds that stopped to rest a moment on the old fence or to satisfy their curiosity. Stout young trees had crowded it aside and broken it. Here and there a leaning post was overgrown with woodbine. The rails were gray and moss-grown. Nature was trying hard to make it a bit of the landscape; it could not much longer retain its individuality. The wild things of the woods had long accepted it as theirs, though not quite as they accepted the vines and trees.

As I sat there a robin hurled himself upon it from the top of a young cedar where he had been, a moment before, practising his mating song. He did not intend to light, but some idle curiosity, like my own, made him pause a moment on the old gray rail. Then a woodpecker lit on the side of a post, and sounded it softly. But he was too near the ground, too near his enemies to make a noise; so he flew to a higher perch and beat a tattoo that made the woods ring. He was safe there, and could make as much noise as he pleased. A wood-mouse stirred the vines and appeared for an instant on the lower rail, then disappeared as if very much frightened at having shown himself in the sunlight. He always does just so at his first appearance.

Presently a red squirrel rushes out of the thicket at the left, scurries along the rails and up and down the posts. He goes like a little red whirlwind, though he has nothing whatever to hurry about. Just opposite my stump he stops his rush with marvelous suddenness; chatters, barks, scolds, tries to make me move; then goes on and out of sight at the same breakneck rush. A jay stops a moment in a young hickory above the fence to whistle his curiosity, just as if he had not seen it fifty times before. A curiosity to him never grows old. He does not scream now; it is his nesting time.-And so on through the afternoon. The old fence is becoming a part of the woods; and every wild thing that passes by stops to get acquainted.

I was weaving an idle history of the old fence, when a chickadee twittered in the pine behind me. As I turned, he flew over me and lit on the fence in front. He had something in his beak; so I watched to find his nest; for I wanted very much to see him at work. Chickadee had never seemed afraid of me, and I thought he would trust me now. But he didn't. He would not go near his nest. Instead he began hopping about the old rail, and pretended to be very busy hunting for insects.

Presently his mate appeared, and with a sharp note he called her down beside him. Then both birds hopped and twittered about the rail, with apparently never a care in the world. The male especially seemed just in the mood for a frolic. He ran up and down the mossy rail; he whirled about it till he looked like a little gray pinwheel; he hung head down by his toes, dropped, and turned like a cat, so as to light on his feet on the rail below. While watching his performance, I hardly noticed that his mate had gone till she reappeared suddenly on the rail beside him. Then he disappeared, while she kept up the performance on the rail, with more of a twitter, perhaps, and less of gymnastics. In a few moments both birds were together again and flew into the pines out of sight.

I had almost forgotten them in watching other birds, when they reappeared on the rail, ten or fifteen minutes later, and went through a very similar performance. This was unusual, certainly; and I sat very quiet, very much interested, though a bit puzzled, and a bit disappointed that they had not gone to their nest. They had some material in their beaks both times when they appeared on the rail, and were now probably off hunting for more-for rabbit fur, perhaps, in the old orchard. But what had they done with it? "Perhaps," I thought, "they dropped it to deceive me." Chickadee does that sometimes. "But why did one bird stay on the rail? Perhaps"-Well, I would look and see.

I left my stump as the idea struck me, and began to examine the posts of the old fence very carefully. Chickadee's nest was there somewhere. In the second post on the left I found it, a tiny knot-hole, which Chickadee had hollowed out deep and lined with rabbit fur. It was well hidden by the vines that almost covered the old post, and gray moss grew all about the entrance. A prettier nest I never found.

I went back to my stump and sat down where I could just see the dark little hole that led to the nest. No other birds interested me now till the chickadees came back. They were soon there, hopping about on the rail as before, with just a wee note of surprise in their soft twitter that I had changed my position. This time I was not to be deceived by a gymnastic performance, however interesting. I kept my eyes fastened on the nest. The male was undoubtedly going through with his most difficult feats, and doing his best to engage my attention, when I saw his mate glide suddenly from behind the post and disappear into her doorway. I could hardly be sure it was a bird. It seemed rather as if the wind had stirred a little bundle of gray moss. Had she moved slowly I might not have seen her, so closely did her soft gray cloak blend with the weather-beaten wood and the moss.

In a few moments she reappeared, waited a moment with her tiny head just peeking out of the knot-hole, flashed round the post out of sight, and when I saw her again it was as she reappeared suddenly beside the male.

Then I watched him. While his mate whisked about the top rail he dropped to the middle one, hopped gradually to one side, then dropped suddenly to the lowest one, half hidden by vines, and disappeared. I turned my eyes to the nest. In a moment there he was-just a little gray flash, appearing for an instant from behind the post, only to disappear into the dark entrance. When he came out again I had but a glimpse of him till he appeared on the rail near me beside his mate.

Their little ruse was now quite evident. They had come back from gathering rabbit fur, and found me unexpectedly near their nest. Instead of making a fuss and betraying it, as other birds might do, they lit on the rail before me, and were as sociable as only chickadees know how to be. While one entertained me, and kept my attention, the other dropped to the bottom rail and stole along behind it; then up behind the post that held their nest, and back the same way, after leaving his material. Then he held my attention while his mate did the same thing.

Simple as their little device was, it deceived me at first, and would have deceived me permanently had I not known something of chickadees' ways, and found the nest while they were away. Game birds have the trick of decoying one away from their nest. I am not sure that all birds do not have more or less of the same instinct; but certainly none ever before or since used it so well with me as Ch'geegee.

For two hours or more I sat there beside the pine thicket, while the chickadees came and went. Sometimes they approached the nest from the other side, and I did not see them, or perhaps got only a glimpse as they glided into their doorway. Whenever they approached from my side, they always stopped on the rail before me and went through with their little entertainment. Gradually they grew more confident, and were less careful to conceal their movements than at first. Sometimes only one came, and after a short performance disappeared. Perhaps they thought me harmless, or that they had deceived me so well at first that I did not even suspect them of nest-building. Anyway, I never pretended I knew.

As the afternoon wore away, and the sun dropped into the pine tops, the chickadees grew hungry, and left their work until the morrow. They were calling among the young birch buds as I left them, busy and sociable together, hunting their supper.

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